Judge Gordon Sullivan is a bonafide space cadet.
Prepare to take an unforgettable journey.
If you look at popular culture from Frankenstein on, we've inherited an image of the scientist as cold, dispassionate, unable to invest in human affairs. As Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey makes clear, this is absolutely true of science, but that doesn't mean it's the case for scientists. Sure, Newton was an ascetic nutter who spent more time on alchemy and discovering codes in the Bible than he spent on either "physics," or it seems, ever having sex. But for every Newton there's someone like Richard Feynman, a Noble Prize-winning physicist who was both a hit with the ladies and played the bongos—if you can find a less cold, dispassionate activity than playing the bongos, please write. It might not matter to most people how the average scientist is viewed, but as increasingly complex technology comes to dominate our world, the role of science and the scientist only increases in stature. The smartest scientists realize this fact, and that's part of the reason why so many of them become educators of one kind or another. Carl Sagan is among the most famous of them, largely for his influential Cosmos: A Personal Journey from 1980. Almost 35 years later, Cosmos has been given an update with noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and it's sure to inspire a new generation of science-lovers.
Facts of the Case
The cosmos is all of our universe and everything in it, and over 13 episodes, Neil deGrasse Tyson uses his Spaceship of the Imagination to take us through that cosmos, from the tiny world found inside a dewdrop to the farthest reaches of the observable universe. Using state-of-the-art special effects we go back into time to the first light we can see (~380,000 years after the Big Bang) to the far future when things like the death of our sun will become a reality. Along the way Tyson introduces us, via animation and voice actors, to some of the biggest names in scientific history from around the globe.
Cosmos, like its predecessor, works largely because of its presenter. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a famous astrophysicist, and seems to do the impossible as our host. On one hand, he's an expert in numerous areas of science, most obviously those areas that touch on matters beyond Earth. To get there, though, he's obviously had extensive training in other areas, and moreover he's a good communicator. So he does a fine job explaining concepts, simplifying difficult ideas or relating useful metaphors. He's like our knowledgeable tour guide. On the other hand, he's not some "rocket scientist" lording his intelligence and learning over we plebes watching. Nope, he's a regular guy who just happens to be really, really enthusiastic about science. That wonder and enthusiasm is infectious, helping viewers want to know more even when the concepts may be difficult to grasp.
Tyson is aided by some of the tools of the previous series—we once again get the Spaceship of the Imagination, which allows Tyson to travel the observable universe both forward and backward in time at numerous physical scales. We also get the "cosmic calendar," which helpfully condenses the universe's 13.8 billion year history into a single calendar year, with the big bang on January 1st, and today at midnight on December 31st. Though a little cheesy, these techniques help sell Tyson's explanation of cosmic (and microcosmic) events. For the historical material, great voice actors (like Patrick Stewart) combined with animations that help bring some of the famous (and not so famous) names of science to life.
It's obvious from this Blu-ray set that hi-def is the way to view Cosmos. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfers included here are very strong. Live footage of Tyson in outdoor settings is the most sharp, with plenty of bright, bold colors. Most of the CGI material is just as impressive. When Tyson refers to the myriad of stars in a galaxy as we see its digital recreation, all kinds of details are discernible in the image. The animation is intentionally low key, but even it is presented well. There are a few artifacts here and there, and some softness crops up, but overall this is a great set of transfers. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly impressive. Tyson's voice is rich and detailed, and Alan Silvestri's score wraps around the soundfield beautifully. There are some issues with dynamic range—there are some moments where Tyson's voice or a musical cue seems especially loud—but overall it's a strong track.
Extras start with a commentary track on the first episode by some of the team behind the show—sadly Seth MacFarlane and Neil deGrasse Tyson are absent, but the rest of the team does a great job going over the highlights of how the show came to be. The second disc has a 35 minute piece filmed at the dedication of Carl Sagan's papers to the Library of Congress, and MacFarlane is included here. The third disc has a featurette of "Cosmos at Comic-Con" that spends 40 minutes with the SDCC experience. The final disc includes a lovely long featurette on the relationship between this Cosmos and the previous version. There's also an interactive version of the "cosmic calendar" from the show that allows viewers to choose particular months to learn more about what was happening in the universe billions of years ago.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are two proverbial elephants in the room with Cosmos, and since Tyson isn't shy about addressing them I won't be either. The first is religion. Tyson obviously finds deep spiritual satisfaction in the process of the scientific method, and his wonder and awe at the universe and its structures is palpable. He is not, however, a huge fan of religion, which historically has opposed science and sought to torture and murder practioners. Whatever authority any individual church has is exactly the kind of authority that science teaches people to question, and until the last century or so, that often didn't go well for scientists. To his credit, Tyson doesn't point fingers at particular religions or even people, but the very strongly religious might find his godless scientific view disturbing. The other big "controversy" is climate change. Tyson is frank that the scientific evidence for the greenhouse effect and global warming is there and we can and should do something about it. Either of these aspects of the show is likely to turn some viewers off, though most of the global warming stuff can be skipped easily by foregoing episode 12.
Though I love science and am impressed by Tyson's commitment to furthering knowledge, I'm not always impressed with the construction of Cosmos. Individual episodes sort of attack a particular issue—like global warming in episode 12—but there seems to be very little coherence either within individual episodes or across the entire series. On the macro level that's understandable—producers don't want to count on all viewers seeing all episodes—but individual episodes are sometimes strangely incoherent. We'll go from Tyson's Spaceship of the Imagination to an animated historical reenactment to a computer generated simulation with no obvious guiding thread. Sure, it looks cool, but there's very little story being told here, and what is being told is being told in 3 minute chunks, like viewers' minds are being wiped in between commercials. It doesn't sink the show, but it does mean that those already familiar with much of the science might find it a frustrating watch.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is one of the few reboots that feels necessary. Science and technology have marched forward in the last 30+ years, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is the perfect person to extend Carl Sagan's legacy of scientific communication. Anyone with any curiosity at all about science will likely find something to enjoy in these 13 episodes, especially with this excellent Blu-ray release.
Not guilty, on a cosmic scale.
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